Friday, December 31, 2010

Book thirty-seven: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I started this year with a new idea: Keep a book journal.  And rather than writing it in an old fashioned book, I decided to keep my book journal online.  It's been a great way to enjoy reading even more.  Just this morning, I finished the last book of 2010, Murial Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog. 

And what a great way to end the year.  Here's a book that introduces the reader to a pair of great characters. The first, a 50-something French concierge (Renee) working in a Paris condominium inhabited by upper-class families.  The second, a precocious 12-year-old girl (Paloma) who is the daughter of one of the upper-class families.  Both are characters who don't live up to their cultural expectations.  Both their lives are changed forever by the appearance of a wise, Japanese gentleman (Kakuro).

Let me start by saying there are a whole bunch of literary, philosophical, musical, and cultural references that went right over my head.  You really need to know your Russian literature and your Japanese Art films to get the most out of this book.  But even though I didn't have all the background info I may have needed, it didn't make the book any less enjoyable.  In fact, it may have made the characters all the more loveable.

If you're looking for a funny (I laughed out loud several times), emotional, charming, and slightly tragic story this is the perfect book.  I won't say much more than that because I'd hate to give away any of the surprises.  I will say that this book, written in first person from the perspective of the two key characters, does something that I never imagined a first person story could accomplish without being totally stupid.  That's a testament to Muriel Barbery's beautiful writing.

Now, I guess I just have to decide what will be my first book in 2011.

The art of the Christmas stocking, part two.

The most commented-on post I've written recently is the one about Christmas stockings.  So I decided an update is in order.  

Let's start with this bit of news.  In my last post I mentioned that as a kid, I created an R2D2 stocking the year that Star Wars was released.  I thought the stocking was long lost but someone rummaging through boxes in my basement recently found it.  Here is the Star Wars stocking that started it all.

Sure my execution skills have improved.  But really, how can you not love an R2D2 stocking, even if it is a little wonky? There's something weirdly goofy about a kid who creates a felt incarnation of R2D2.  And I'm not sure that kid has recovered from said goofiness. Here is this year's official Christmas stocking.

I call it Christmas Monkey from the Popeye Series.  It's a somewhat obscure reference to the work of Jeff Koons.  But just to prove I'm not making this stuff up, here are a few images of Jeff Koons works featuring the monkey that inspired the stocking. 

Koons even wrapped a CT Scanner for a children's hospital as part of the RxART program.

I'm guessing my goofy penchant for all things felt will continue next year.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Book thirty-six: Popular Culture and High Culture by Herbert Gans.

Here's a book I'm not going to spend too much time writing about, mainly because I spent too much time reading it.  Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste Revised and Updated by Herbert Gans is a mostly academic treatise which tries to make the case that the world should pay more attention to popular culture.  I suppose the title should have been a clue that this book is a snoozer.  But in my defense, I read the book on the recommendation of a friend: a friend who HASN'T READ THE BOOK!

Maybe when this book was originally written in 1975, its arguments made more sense.  But I live in a world where well-educated, middle and upper-middle class Americans have no problem vacillating between a day at the museum and a night at a honky-tonk club getting drunk and dancing with the locals.  Oh sure, there are still those culture snobs that will never admit that anything good can come from Rap music.  But does anyone really take them seriously anymore?

Sure, maybe the poor and other under-served communities still don't get the time and attention they deserve on the cultural landscape.  But we're working on it.  And even if the author is right, he makes absolutely no realistic suggestions for how to solve the problem and he even admits that his ideas are impossible.

From my perspective, if you want to explore the wonders of popular vs. high culture, spend an afternoon at the county fair followed by a night at the symphony.  It won't be nearly as time consuming as reading this book and I'll bet you'll get a lot more pleasure from the experience.

Book thirty-five: By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham.

My literary tour of the New York art scene continues with Michael Cunningham's new novel, By Nightfall. This is the story of Peter, a successful gallery owner (although not "Gagosian" successful) in New York and his wife Rebecca.  They've long been content in their marriage although maybe something has been lost.  Things are distrupted when Rebecca's much younger brother Ethan arrives.  Ethan, nicknamed Mizzy (short for "Mistake"), is a recovering drug adict and, in general, trouble; albeit handsome, smart trouble.

Cunningham writes beautifully about the art world.  I loved the scene where Peter and a friend take a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art just after the friend has revealed she has breast cancer and is closing her gallery.  The ensuing scene pits two great works of art against each other.  The first is Rodin's The Bronze Age a stunning, life-sized bronze of a young nude man. And yet this sculpture is something you, "pass on your way to see the Damien Hirst." 

The Hirst in question is The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. A title that makes the work somehow more relevant in a scene featuring a woman dying of cancer.  If you haven't scene the work, it's a 13-foot dead shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde.  It's worth reading By Nightfall for this scene alone, with it's questions about life and death; questions somehow lost on a young teenage couple falling in love.

That's not all I like about this book.  I like the nod to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice.  And the art work of the young, up-and-coming artist is fascinating. (Maybe I should make my name in art by realizing the fictional works of art imagined in literature.) And the surprises toward the end of the novel were lovely and rewarding.  This book is melancholy, maybe even tragic.  But somehow, it left me happy; enough so that I've already downloaded another Cunningham novel.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Book thirty-four: An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin.

Oh to be Steve Martin.  A funny, writer, musician, screenwriter, art collector, and brilliant Twitterer.  Is there nothing this man can't do?  Oh sure, all my friends point to the Pink Panther remakes to cut him down to size.  But those are minor blemishes on an otherwise brilliant career from a man who seems larger than life. And just to make sure we haven't forgetten, Steve gives us his new novel, An Object of Beauty.  Thanks Steve, for making us all feel yet again, inadequate.

Let me start by saying that I may be predisposed to like this book based on content alone. The novel takes an insider's look at the New York art scene from auction houses, to galleries, to the artists themselves.  And since I'm a big fan of fine art, An Object of Beauty had me enthralled from the opening moments. 

The book tells the story of Lacey Yeager, a young, beautiful, ambitious women set on climbing her way to the top of the art gallery world, even if it means engaging in some questionable activities.  The story is told ingeniously by Lacey's friend Daniel.  I love how the book gets so caught up in Lacey's story that you forget Daniel is telling it.  Then, just at the right moments, Daniel pulls you out of the narrative and gives you a paragraph or two of insight. 

It's obvious that Martin is a fan of art.  Some of the most engaging moments in the book are musings on art and artists.  I think Martin secretly wishes to be an art critic. Maybe that's why he's cast Daniel as a successful art writer.

But what makes An Object of Beauty such an engaging read is Martin's ability to effortlessly present characters and stories.  This book seems almost obvious; like it wrote itself, as if the story and characters always existed and just now appeared magically on the page.  Never do words get in the way of the characters.  Never does plot, or structure, or character development get in the way of the story.  It's a testament to Steve Martin's talent that it's as if there is no effort involved in writing this book because as a writer I know that's not the case. 

Of course, there's also a sophisticated humor that runs throughout the book.  Lacey Yeager is nothing if not quick witted.  Many of the chapters end with her sharp, funny statements that make you want to hang out with her.  And there are plenty of other funny moments that made me laugh.  I have to note a reference to one of my favorite Steve Martin movies, L.A. Story.  In one of its most memorable scenes, Steve Martin's character and one of his friends visit a museum.  While there, Steve reveals his secret roller skates and glides through the galleries while his friend video tapes him.  You can imagine my delight then, at this exchange from An Object of Beauty between Lacey and Daniel in reference to an Italian furniture exhibit at the Guggenheim:

Lacey: "I'd rather fuck an Italian than sit on his furniture."
Daniel: "You didn't like it?"
Lacey: "I guess I was unclear. No."
Daniel: "How come?"
Lacey: "Taste? Only one thing could have made it better."
Daniel: "What's that?"
Lacey: "Roller skates."

Steve Martin isn't afraid to make fun of the absurdities of the contemporary art world. Take, for example, the conversation that happens at a party attended by the art-world elite.  The discussion turns to a lamentation on the end of real art movements like Cubism, Surrealism, Minimalism, Pop, etc. (That in itself is funny because at the time, I don't think anyone would have considered Pop a "real" art movment.") In response, the party guests start to enumerate new categories of art including "pale art" (faint things with not much going on in them), "high-craft OCD" (those guys who take a thousand pinheads and paint a picture of their grandmother on every one), "low-craft ironics" (a fancy name for wink-wink nudge nudge), "animated interiors" (apocolyptic scenes of stuff flying around a room), "angry pussy" (stuff made with menstrual blood), and my personal favorite "junk on the floor" (about which Hinton, a big time collector says, "You walk into a gallery and there's stuff strewn everywhere. I've got three of those.")  I think I've seen works in all of these categories.

Then there are the moments of just plain wonderful writing.  Like when Patrice, the Frenchman who has hopelessly fallen for Lacey, walks with her through the streets of New York.  The passage reads like a scene from Breakfast at Tiffany's: beautiful, romantic, with a literary sparkle.  And yet, it somehow aches with melancholy: "Madisson Avenue was just beginning to flicker on. They walked down the street, sometimes arm in arm, sometimes with Lacey breaking away to physically exaggerate a point, walking backward, then slue-footing around to take his hand or slip her arm through the crook of his elbow."  That's enough to make anyone want to take a chance on love and art in New York City. And to read whatever Martin writes next.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The art of the Christmas stocking.

Some 30-plus years ago I saw the original Stars Wars and was transfixed.  That year for Christmas, I created an original stocking that featured a brilliant felt version of R2D2.  The R2D2 stocking has long since been lost.  But I tell this story in hopes that it somehow explains a bizarre habit I've developed.

For more than a decade, I've made a unique stocking each and every holiday season.  Most of the stockings have been given to my good friend Felix.  But in more recent years, I've taken to making multiples so that even more people can roll their eyes at my strange holiday tradition.  The most recent stockings have been inspired by pop culture icons or the fine-art world. And I have to say, there's something strangely rewarding about translating the art world into the classic trappings of Christmas stockings, namely felt, glitter, beads, and crystals.

So, as a special holiday post, I give you my most recent, favorite Christmas stockings:

In 2007,  I created For the Love of Christmas.  Yes, for you art lovers that's a reference to Damien Hirst's diamond encrusted, platinum skull created the same year titled For the Love of God.  Let's face it, a black/gray stocking with a glitter skull says something about the whole Christmas story.  Or maybe not.

©Christmas was the stocking for 2008.  I've got an extra version of this stocking for the first person who can name the artist I'm referencing and why I titled it the way I did.  I'm pretty sure there's a copyright infringement associated with this stocking.

Last year's stocking strayed into the world of pop movie icons.  I call this The Rocky Horror Christmas Show. 

Get a load of the hand-beaded detail on the lip logo.

This year's Christmas stocking is currently in production. But it won't be revealed until Christmas eve.  A hint: I've returned to plagiarizing the stars of the fine art world.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

You're right. This is totally gay.

I've been following this story for a while and it's finally a reality.  I just got my tickets. And even though this event won't happen until June of 2011, I'm so excited I had to write a post.  Next June, in what may be the gayest trip ever, I'll be going to San Francisco to see a new musical theater production based on Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City with music and lyrics by Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters.  Holy cow.  Even for me, that's a whole lotta gay.  I can hardly wait!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Abstract iPadexpressionism.

As an iPad owner, I haven't been that impressed with the device.  I also haven't been afraid to voice my complaints.  Sure the touch interface is amazing.  But it takes more than that to win me over.  And there's plenty wanting when it comes to the iPad. I mean really, I couldn't even turn the thing on when I first got it because my iMac isn't new enough.  I had to borrow a friends computer to get it running. And just try to post to Blogger from your iPad. It's impossible unless you know HTML.  HTML!?!  Why don't you just ask me to code my blog in DOS?

All that said, there are a few things that are starting to make me appreciate the iPad, and most of those things are the apps. It's proof that when you give a so-so product to a bunch of inventive techno wizards, you get some really amazing results.  A couple of my favorites include the Glee app and the Scrabble app.  But the app that has me all abuzz is the Museum of Modern Art's (MoMA) new app developed in conjunction with it's current exhibit, Abstract Expressionist New York (Ab Ex NY). The app is free and you can download it here.

Now  I'm not the biggest fan of Abstract Expressionism but I'd love to see this show which boasts some of the best artists from the middle of last century. Unfortunately, I may not make it to NYC before this show closes on April 25, 2011.  That's why I want to say thanks to the curators at MoMA for offering such a great way to experience the show digitally.  The Ab Ex NY app let's you browse the show.  When you select a specific work, you can get more info about the artist and the painting or sculpture.  Plus, you can zoom into the high-res photos and get a decent idea of what the paint looks like on the canvas; or the texture of the finish on sculptures. It's still not like seeing the real thing, but it's a lot better than any other reproduced format I've experienced.

Plus there are plenty of other goodies.  You can watch engaging videos about the artists and their works.  There's a great interactive map of New York City that relates the exhibit to the city itself, showing you where the artists lived and worked or where you can see other works by the artists featured in the exhibit.  You can even shop for Ab Ex NY art books and merchandise directly from the app.

Beatifully art directed and ingeniously organized, I give MoMA's Ab Ex NY app a big thumbs up.  And I hope other museums will take a cue from thismake it possible to enjoy other exhibits